Such a great person interviewed by a Northwestern University Periodical staffer…to these convictions…I say Amen…be inspired and consider your role.
THE MAGAZINE OF LEARNING, LEADERSHIP, AND POLICY
Sperry Leads World Relief Chicagoland
Helping refugees and immigrants find homes
Susan Sperry (MS15) was a high school senior when she learned that a friend’s living situation was falling apart. Her parents opened their home to the girl, an exchange student from Croatia, a decision Sperry called “radical hospitality.”
“Living with someone from a different background and culture was an incredibly rich experience,” she says. “And it planted a seed.”
Now executive director of World Relief Chicagoland, Sperry helps refugees and other immigrants find homes, resources, and community in the US. She credits her master’s in learning and organizational change degree with helping her move up in a field she’s passionate about: coaching people and systems through turbulent change.
Becoming a leader
Sperry began working for World Relief as a receptionist. Later she moved into the role of director of resettlement, where she solved problems large and small for refugee families resettling in the Chicago suburbs. She was working as refugee services director, supporting and coaching managers and staff, when she began studying for her master’s degree. “I just had a hunger to learn, and I wanted to know more,” she says. “World Relief works with people going through transition; the nature of our work is fast-paced and constantly changing. And structurally the organization was also going through change.”
Of her MSLOC classes, Sperry particularly liked Designing and Executing Strategic Change, a project-based elective that helps students learn how to improve organizations through design. “I’ve always had a desire to dig into what confuses and frustrates me,” she says. “I personally don’t do well with change. Much of what I learned through MSLOC helped me figure out how to change things for the better for myself and others around me.”
Race, religion, and political realities can shape the global response to the refugee crisis, Sperry says. “For example, many people have observed different responses in Europe and even in this country toward Ukrainian refugees than there were towards Syrians when they were fleeing,” she says. “We should have open arms to people who are fleeing bombs going off in their towns, whoever they are, wherever they are. That should be the compassionate response.
World Relief volunteers are often astounded by the richness of their experiences, Sperry says. “What I often hear is that they expected to be ‘the ones helping or doing things’ but ended up gaining so much more than they gave.”
Why she does it
After decades in the field, Sperry has seen refugees who arrived as children graduate from high school and attend college or launch small businesses and build careers. She is fueled by “seeing the beauty of human resilience, helping people make a way for themselves, and seeing how relationships form across cultures,” she says.
Sperry’s work is tied to her faith. She also keeps the long game in sight. “I can talk a lot about self-care, which I’m not always good at,” she says. “But it’s important to have good relationships, build in regular rhythms of rest, and do things that I find are life-giving, like hiking and paddleboarding.”
An uncertain future
Having been through a season where the support and services for and popular opinion on immigrants and refugees have been based on who’s in power, Sperry says she’s “concerned about who’s in power next— whoever that might be. At the end of the day, it’s real people’s lives that are affected. We have the privilege to advocate with our government, to speak up, to use our voices. Advocacy is a key way to create change.”
–By Julie Deardorff